We just had an amazing dinner at Manresa last night.
The ambience was very nice. Subdued lighting, lots of comforting wood. It is more casual than The Dining Room but certainly more comfortable.
The service. I agree with previous posters that it's a little unpolished, but they're certainly very nice. Our waiter even seemed a little nervous but we perfered that over the overbearing presence of captains at The Dining Room and The French Laundry. We sat next to 3 other couples celebrating birthdays and everyone got candles and birthday wishes with dessert. Guess 9 months from November 2nd (around Valentines Day) was pretty popular. Evidence of how amenable the service was will follow.
We didn't go with the tasting because time was a concern (the couple next to us that did were there for 3-4 hours). The a la carte menu was eye-opening though in several ways.
Amuse 1: Curded tomato puree with olive oil. Whatever this curded tomato was, it ended up tasting like caramel. It was a pretty brilliant transmutation and one of the most clever amuse bouches I've had.
Amuse 2: The classic Manresa soft boiled egg with sherry vinegar. The egg was slightly cooked on the sides, but the center was creamy and delicious. The truffled egg custard at The French Laundry may have the slight edge though.
Course 1: Shellfish risotto for myself and the sweet onion cream soup with manchego cheese and poached egg for the birthday girl. The shellfish risotto was redolent with sea essence. It contained baby oysters, clams, and a beautifully sweet spot prawn. The entire dish was topped with slightly warmed sweet uni. The sweet onion cream soup was simple. The sweetness of the soup, the richness of the cheese and the yolk swirled in a nebula of deliciousness. Though not enlightening, it was very comforting. It also goes well with champagne.
Course 2: Atlantic hake with kale for the lady and fried pig's head stuffed with foie gras for me. The hake was perfectly cooked and slightly smoked...very interesting, and the slight bitterness of the greens was a perfect foil. The fried pigs head was reminiscent of a crab cake. The cake was made with the hearty, rich meat around the head with small chunks of foie gras interspersed throughout. This was all topped with a maderia cream sauce and served with grilled porcini. The richness of it all is literally heart-stopping...but it's worth it.
Course 3: We both got the suckling pig with a side of sunchokes and fennel (neither of us were willing to share). The suckling pig came 2 ways: the leg portion with a wonderful thick, crispy skin and the tender chop. The vibrance of the sunchokes, fennel, and crushed figs was perfect in cutting through the richness.
Course 4: Pineapple quince souffle and an uber-rich chocolate marquis with roasted banana ice cream.
The tea box with beatiful tea leaves and flowers was impressive.
Overall, I'd have to agree with the much criticized Michelin Guide in placing Manresa well over The Dining Room. The flavor combinations are more unique and just downright tastier. I also found it to be as cerebral as The French Laundry in many ways.
The wine list is a little limited and the service is certainly less polished but they are amazingly friendly. We asked them when they would start offering beignets again for dessert and they said all we had to do was call ahead the next time and they'd prepare beignets for us.
Now that's my kind of restaurant.